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reviews added: 2/5/01



Todd Doogan is... the DVD Fanboy DVD Fanboy reviews MGM's Soul Cinema DVDs

reviews by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits
(a.k.a. DVD Fanboy)
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com

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Cotton Comes to Harlem


Cotton Comes to Harlem
1970 (2000) - United Artists (MGM)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/D+

Specs and Features:

96 mins, R, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: Spanish and French, Closed Captioned


"Is that Black enough for you?"

Famed writer Chester Himes was sentenced to prison, at the age of 19, for 25 years (the charge: armed robbery - time served: 8 years). It was in prison where Himes first started writing. He began writing magazine and newspaper articles, then moved on to novels in 1945. By 1953, Himes grew tired of the racial climate and his inability to garner great success with American audiences, and landed in France. It was while living in France as an ex-patriot that Chester Himes began writing a series of hard-boiled crime novels (in French) about his two trademark Harlem detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. They started their adventures in For Love of Imabelle (a.k.a. A Rage in Harlem - 1957), and moved on to The Real Cool Killers (1959), The Crazy Kill (1959), The Big Gold Dream (1960), All Shot Up (1960), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), The Heat's On (1966 - which was made into the film Come Back Charleston Blue, starring the cast of this film) and Blind Man with a Pistol (1969). The characters ended in the posthumously released and uncompleted novel Plan B (1983). Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones were a couple of mean and nasty guys, that read incredibly likable, probably because we never had to see them in person.

Cotton Comes to Harlem focuses on the charismatic ex-con Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart), who is bilking the neighborhood citizens of their hard earned cash. The con is disguised as a planned cruise back to Africa for anyone willing to drop a $100 down payment for the trip. Next thing you know, the DA's office is coming in grabbing Deke to take him Downtown for questioning. Then, a gang of machine gun-toting thugs storms the party, taking every last cent of the $87,000 collected for the cruise. In come Coffin Ed and Grave Digger to the rescue, arriving on scene just in time to chase down the getaway meat truck... only to watch it get away when they crash their car into a watermelon cart. But something ain't right. In fact, something stinks... and our two intrepid detectives smell a fix. Ed and Grave Digger are going to find out it is and when they do, Hell's coming to Harlem.

Cotton Comes to Harlem is a schizo-comedy. One moment you're laughing and then, all of a sudden, POW! Something happens to offset the comedy for about 10 minutes until you start laughing again. Some of what happens is pretty scary, and some of it will cause you to think, but all of it makes for a pretty darn good film, that's actually aged very well. But Cotton's a little more deep than all of that. Because it's a Himes story, it's also a serious meditation on race relations, social anxieties and what it means to be the law on both sides of the fence. The underlying question is "What is it like being black?" And the answers are never easily digested. Sure, the times change, but the world of this film (and the underlying novel are) is as universal today as it was in 1965. Cotton's a good film and worth checking out.

I don't know a whole lot about the technical production of this film, but it's presented here on DVD in full frame. The picture seems free of panning and scanning, so 1.33:1 just may be the correct aspect ratio. The print looks okay. There's a few source defects that pop up, but the grain is low, colors are natural and line detail is nice. This is a great transfer for a film from 1970. The sound is a two-channel mono track, with no hissing or pops.

You'll find the trailer on this disc, but nothing else in terms of extras. Aside from not being a special edition, I think MGM took good care of Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Cotton Comes to Harlem




Black Caesar

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Black Caesar
1973 (2000) - American International Pictures (MGM)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/B+

Specs and Features:

94 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, commentary with director Larry Cohen, theatrical trailer, film themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English and Spanish (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: Spanish and French, Closed Captioned


"Paid the cost to be the boss... Look at me? Know what you see? See a bad mother... Huh!"

Loosely based on the legend of Harlem gangster Nicky Barnes (from back in the day of real gangsters), Larry Cohen brings Nicky into 70s Harlem, renames him and cuts him loose on society. Black Caesar follows young Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), from eager mob-friendly shoeshine boy to ruthless capo of the underworld. His methods are ruthless, his mind twisted and his sex is dirty. But when it comes to the neighborhood, he's Robin Hood in fur and a wide brimmed hat. He gives back to the community and, even if his methods are questionable, he still has his heart in the right place. And if you screw with him... your heart will be in his hand.

Gibbs' main push for success comes from his animosity towards a beat cop who crippled him as a child. McKinney, the beat cop, grows into an old corrupt precinct chief on his way to commissioner, who Gibbs' plays like a fiddle at first. But the more power and control he gets, the more security he looses. Will Gibbs end up like Cagney in White Heat or will he skate away with his wits and ass fully intact?

This is one of the most celebrated films in the blaxpoitation genre, and it deserves all the praise you can heap on it. This is an epic in every way. We get the beginning, middle and end of a crime lord's rise and fall. And boy, does this guy fall. He does so much power playing that by the time he becomes the godfather of crime in Harlem, all of his partners either hate him or are dead. Of course, just when you start to think you don't need any friends... that's when you need them the most. There's also a really beautiful level of psychology going on with Gibbs in this film. You really get to know his struggle and see why he does the things he does. It's a really intricate character study that entertains like a mo-fo. Black Caesar is a good film compared to any (regardless of genre), and it just happens to be a shining gem in MGMs Soul Cinema series.

The DVD doesn't shine quite as brightly, but still has a little bit of luster. The anamorphic picture is nice in spots, but shows a bit of wear in others. There's patches of excessive grain, color loss and source damage, but it looks good for the most part. There's little artifacting and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. It looks pretty good for a 1973 film, really. The sound is a 2.0 mono track, that only really comes alive with the music (which rocks - a James Brown score and one of his best soundtrack contributions ever). Dialogue is clear - there's no distortion to be heard.

Also included on this DVD is the trailer and, joy of joys, a commentary track with writer, director and produced Larry Cohen. Cohen is a true genre pioneer. He's a bit off on this track, but he does provide some interesting insights into the origin of the film, working for AIP and how the film came together. It's not a commentary I'd say you MUST hear, but it's definitely worth a listen.

Black Caesar is a really good film. If you haven't seen it, you really are missing out on one of the better films of this genre. Do yourself a favor and check it out on DVD.

Black Caesar




I'm Gonna Git You Sucka


I'm Gonna Git You Sucka
1988 (2000) - United Artist (MGM)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/F

Specs and Features:

89 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish and French, Closed Captioned


"Fluff up them pillows..."

This is probably one of the greatest genre spoofs ever made - right up there with Airplane. Keenan Ivory Wayans plays Jack Spade, a man just out of the Army who's come home to find that his brother Junebug has been murdered (made to look like an apparent OG... or "over gold") by the man he worked for, Mr. Big. Recruiting the help of his hero, John Slade, and his team of blaxpoitation refugees (Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, Antonio Fargas and Steve James), Jack and company go into the underworld to shake things up. All the while, they're dodging hilarious sight gags, witty genre in-jokes and inner-city commentary with the greatest of ease.

For the fans of Scary Movie, this is a much better film all the way around. The jokes are non-stop and every one of them work. Maybe it helps to be familiar with the genre, but for the most part you'll get it. The acting is also top notch, with cameos by Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Eve Plumb, Clarence Williams III and David Alan Grier. Also, look for Jurassic Park's Ariana Richards in an inspired bit.

On DVD, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka isn't anamorphic and should have been. The picture is rough in spots, but is still very watchable. There's also some heavy grain and damage to the print. The sound is a simple stereo track, without much play (it sounds almost mono). Also included is a funny trailer.

Of all these Soul Cinema films, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka is the newest and would have benefited the most from better treatment. This disc should also have been a special edition. The fact that it isn't is a real shame. Still, it's definitely a must see. Don't miss at least renting this disc.

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka



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